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A bridge to Japan

Nijiya Market in Mountain View offers a trove of Japanese specialties

Nijiya Market's origin story is a familiar one. Longing for the flavors of one's homeland, an immigrant creates a space -- a grocery store, a restaurant, a street food stand -- filled with native foods, a taste of the familiar in an unfamiliar place.

In this case, Saburomaru Tsujino came to the United States in 1965. Yearning for Japanese food and chafing against a diet of heavy American hamburgers and steaks, he started ordering favorite products from Japan. He realized the potential of selling the imported goods and opened the first Nijiya Market in San Diego in 1986. "Niji" means rainbow and "ya" means store in Japanese; the store's rainbow icon represents a bridge between Japan and America, according to Mountain View store manager Akira Shibuya.

Tsujino, who died in November, took providing Japanese immigrants with a taste of home and educating others about Japanese food culture to the next level. Nijiya grew to a dozen locations, published a food magazine in three languages, opened a 25-acre organic farm, created an internship program and launched its own brand under which rice, dashi, miso and other products are made.

"It all started in hopes of contributing to the local society through Japanese food, and make this wonderful Japanese taste known to the people of America," Nijiya's website states. "This enthusiasm became the basis of Nijiya Market."

Nijiya opened its Mountain View store 20 years ago in an otherwise unremarkable strip mall on El Camino Real. Its aisles are still stocked with mostly direct-from-Japan products: Kewpie mayonnaise, 15 kinds of sesame oil, fresh udon noodles, tamago kani (snack-friendly dried and seasoned baby crabs), monaka (thin mochiko-flour wafers with sweet fillings like red bean paste or matcha), sake, bags of rice from a specialty store in Tokyo, and every flavor of Pocky sticks under the sun.

A produce section at the front of the store carries fresh fruits and vegetables, some from the Nijiya Farm in Southern California -- on a recent afternoon, that included nira (garlic chives), myoga (Japanese ginger), yams and burdock root. There's also ample Korean, Chinese and American produce.

The hidden gem of this store is its low-key deli, which churns out some of the better ramen, soba soup and sushi in the area. The Mountain View Nijiya is the only of four Northern California locations that serves hot food, Shibuya said.

The tonkotsu ramen ($8) comes with fresh noodles, thin slices of chashu and an egg. The broth recipe is a secret that Shibuya won't reveal, even if you ask nicely. At $5.50, the sansai soba bowl -- assorted pickled vegetables served over a tangle of fresh soba in a cleansing broth -- is perhaps one of the Peninsula's best lunch deals. Nijiya also serves curry soup, kakiage (seafood tempura over noodles), karaage and curry rice. Extra toppings like green onion, nori, and togarashi are humbly offered in self-service tubs with plastic silverware.

Next to the deli is a heavenly cold-food section practically overflowing with fresh sushi, both rolls and nigiri; chirashi; katsu and tamago sandwiches; onigiri; and bento boxes. Nijiya grows and harvests its own rice in the Sacramento Valley.

If you're unfamiliar with Japanese foods, pick up a free copy of Gochiso, Nijiya's glossy food magazine, packed with more than 100 pages of recipes, explanations of ingredients and Japanese history. The 2017 edition includes a history of soba, a feature on the precious Karaimo sweet potato cake and ideas for how to cook with goya, a bitter, bright green, oblong-shaped melon.

Shibuya has worked for Nijiya for a decade, first in Los Angeles and then Northern California. There are Nijiya markets in San Mateo, San Jose and San Francisco; throughout Southern California; and two in Hawaii. The Mountain View store is its own community, he said, particularly for families with young children in the area.

Shibuya grew up in Osaka, Japan, listening to American music (his parents loved The Beatles) and watching American films. He wanted to come to the United States ever since watching a movie about California -- he doesn't remember now what it was called -- and decamped for the Golden State after graduating from university at 26 years old.

There are few Japanese foods he misses, he said, because most of them are available at Nijiya Market.

"We have, I think, everything," Shibuya said.

Nijiya Market

143 E. El Camino Real, Mountain View

650-691-1600

nijiya.com

Hours: Monday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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